Humane societies played hooky
SASKATOON, Saskatchewan, Canada––From the perspective of 1,500 miles and more than two weeks away, the most remarkable aspect of the recent 5th International One Health Congress in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was that even though hundreds of people participated, many of those who should have been there were not.
No one attended representing any animal advocacy or animal welfare organization, not even the local humane society. Yet disease kills vastly more animals and causes more animal suffering than any factor other than slaughter for meat consumption.
Indeed, more animals are killed to control the spread of deadly infectious diseases than through any other deliberate human activity.
More cruelty occurs just in the routine “stamping out” response of agricultural agencies to outbreaks of avian influenza, the fungal infection Newcastle, foot-and-mouth disease, and many other diseases common to poultry and livestock, than in all use of animals for entertainment, biomedical research, and even sport hunting.
Hundreds of thousands of animals are gassed, buried alive, or even burned alive in disease-driven holocausts, just because desperate officials and farmers cannot find any faster way to respond to outbreaks they would much rather prevent.
Much of the 5th International One Health Congress addressed preventing disease epidemics and pandemics, and identifying the real threats they pose, as well as refuting the myths and superstitions that often fuel public and agribusiness panics.
It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the scale and importance of animal agriculture will contract in coming decades through the growing popularity of vegan and vegetarian substitutes for meat, leather, and dairy products.
The advent of cell-cultured products that are chemically identical to meat, but made without using animals, might soon produce an evolutionary shift in human diet, as the organizers of the July 20-21, 2018 third annual New Harvest conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts project.
Reducing the scale of animal agriculture is a focal animal advocacy goal. But even if it is accomplished, and quickly, millions of animals are likely to remain on farms, suffering from disease and disease control measures, for many more years.
Should the animal advocacy and animal welfare communities not at least take an interest in improving those animals’ existence?
Countless opportunities for collaboration among scientists, public health agencies, and organizations dedicated to preventing animal suffering were lost in the poster session meetings and hallway discussions that never took place, simply because half of the people who should have been participating were not there, and were not represented by anyone else.
Young researchers dedicated to eradicating canine rabies from Pakistan and several African nations, for instance, working for government agencies, urgently needed introductions to the animal welfare societies which have already been addressing rabies in those places for decades. Each has tools and experience that can hugely help the others.
No animal shrinks
Also conspicuously absent from the 5th International One Health Congress were scientists studying any aspect of animal psychology. There appear to have been no ethologists on the program, for example.
Several speakers mentioned in passing how poor animal welfare can lead to depressed animals engaging in behavior, such as the “cribbing” of horses who gnaw their surroundings, that may help to transmit disease.
But no one spoke about how to keep animals mentally healthy in confined or working environments. No one seemed to have any philosophical objection to integrating improved response to animals’ emotional needs with improved therapeutic and preventative veterinary care, but no experts were present to talk about how.
No “compassionate conservationists,” either
Responding to diseases transmitted by introduced adaptive species was among the frequent concerns raised at the 5th International One Health Congress.
While some of the speakers issued the clichéd warnings and denunciations of “invasive species” that have become standard conference fare in recent years, others more thoughtfully weighed the positive aspects of adaptive species with the negative.
Specifically, some speakers noted that more competition among varied species can reduce the rate of spread of infectious disease by reducing the concentrations of vulnerable animals around any given food source or water hole.
Some mentioned that increased predation can actually encourage the abundance of species at risk from infectious diseases, since predators tend to cull the sick animals before they can infect many others.
People involved in the newly emergent academic discipline of “compassionate conservation” might have had much to contribute to the discussion, and much to learn and share. But no one there––besides ourselves––seemed to know what “compassionate conservation” is.
Journalists “bugged out”
Most noticeably absent, unfortunately, were the mass media journalists who should have been attending dozens of the conference sessions, helping to translate scientific information that was often presented as a jumble of jargon into articles that can help inform the public.
Almost every 5th International One Health Congress session included presentations of findings which, in context, should have interested the readers of one section or another of any mainstream newspaper: public policy coverage on page one with discussion on the editorial page; farm-and-business plus health, education, and family coverage in the inside pages; and there were even some presentations relevant to sports, horoscopes [one speaker mentioned how beliefs in astrology can interfere with appropriate disease response at the community level], and the comics, as many a cartoon flashed during PowerPoint presentations.Even if shrinking newsroom staff and budget kept most major mass media from sending at least one reporter, freelancers and stringers should have been at the 5th International One Health Congress in force.
Infectious diseases cross species boundaries
Only some of the blame for the absences can be ascribed in any way to the One Health Congress organizers––and blaming them at all seems a bit unfair, inasmuch as they cannot have been expected to invite anyone whose existence they may not have known about, and in any event could not have dragged the absentees in bodily.
The One Health Congress founders and organizers have for a decade now labored to persuade the global public health, veterinary, and environmental communities that infectious diseases routinely cross species boundaries and should be studied and addressed with recognition that animal and human health are a continuum.They have succeeded to some extent in raising awareness. Keyword searches of the archives at NewsLibrary.com show that mentions of the term “One Health” in connection with zoonotic disease have increased tenfold in ten years––but remain few compared to the totality of coverage of animal welfare issues, zoonotic disease outbreaks, and relevant scientific findings.
Former Woodland Park Zoo and Wildlife Conservation Society senior scientist William Karesh, who reputedly coined the term “One Health,” and Dutch virologist Ab Osterhaus, who chairs the One Health Platform and convened the 5th International One Health Congress, have long emphasized broad inclusion.
In that spirit, ANIMALS 24-7 was invited to attend and report about the congress proceedings. While this is the first article to result from our attendance, it will scarcely be the last, as we make use of a wealth of new sources and contacts in coming months.
“Virologists and microbiologists”
Even at the sparsely attended opening media conference––where the two ANIMALS 24-7 representatives were half of the assembled media and the only representatives other than from scientific journals–– Osterhaus acknowledged that the One Health Congress had been started by “a bunch of virologists and microbiologists,” who perhaps still did not understand very well how to reach the broader public.
But Osterhaus et al tried. There were live-feed arrangements made to enable journalists in far-away places to monitor the most important plenary sessions from their laptops. There were conference sessions open to the public.
From “St. James Infirmary” to “The Royal Dick”
The venue, at the TCU Convention Center in downtown Saskatoon, was accessible and affordable––and right next door to the biggest shopping mall serving the city. Visitors were even welcomed at the opening reception, and sent home from the farewell dinner, by the Pile of Bones Brass Band, the liveliest jazz ensemble we have ever heard at a conference, whose rendition of “St. James Infirmary” could have been the theme song for One Health itself.
More could be done to expand the 6th International One Health Congress, scheduled for Edinburg, Scotland, in 2020, into the more broadly inclusive and influential event that Karesh and Osterhaus, and other 5th International One Health Congress participants told ANIMALS 24-7 they would like to see.
Before any of that is done, though, the organizers of 6th International One Health Congress at the Royal Dick veterinary school will have to decide whether they really want to assemble an even larger event, at risk of diluting the historical focus on virology, microbiology, and immunology, mostly at the slide-and-microscope level.
There are other risks to be considered.
Very few of the 5th International One Health Congress participants are personally engaged in any of the sort of invasive laboratory-based animal experimentation that for more than two centuries has fired the ire of militant antivivisectionists.
Only one speaker whose presentation we heard mentioned doing invasive terminal experiments on non-human primates.
Several speakers who discussed experiments involving rodents included a few words about what they did to meet animal welfare concerns.
One mentioned euthanizing animals before an experiment was supposed to have concluded, to stop what had become evident animal suffering.
Reality, however, is that for many committed animal advocates, concessions by scientists to welfare considerations which were unheard of a generation ago are still not enough.
Reasons for apprehension
Even though the International One Health Congress concerns involve preventing magnitudes of order more animal suffering than anything any of the researchers might cause, or have caused in the past, scientific participants have had considerable reason to be apprehensive of sharing information with animal advocates whom they might suspect of at least being friends of anti-animal research terrorists.
Conversely, animal advocacy organizations may fear being accused of consorting with vivisectors if they attend the 6th International One Health Congress to share information.
If that issue can be accommodated––and the 5th International One Health Congress admirably bridged comparable divides associated with world politics, religion, and ethnicity––then one or more of the many major international animal welfare organizations headquartered in the British Isles might be invited to help put the 6th International One Health Congress together, including by bringing in sponsors and speakers.
Getting on the right track
Some restructuring of the presentation tracks could also help to broaden interest, influence, and participation.
The three 5th International One Health Congress tracks, each describing sets of simultaneous sessions, made sense at the slide-and-microscope level, but not so much to non-scientists.
One track focused on pathogen discovery, diagnostics, and related issues in social science and politics.
A second track addressed surveillance and early detection of disease outbreaks, including intervention strategies and applications of the One Health concept in underprivileged communities, especially in the developing world.
The third track concerned issues pertaining to antimicrobial agents and resistance.
Dogs & cows
But what if someone came in the door who was mainly interested in issues relevant to farmed animals, pets, diet and health, wildlife management, or public education?
Or even just dogs or cows?
A wealth of information was presented which would have been of significance to that person, but finding it would have involved a lot of hopping back and forth among rooms and tracks.
Further, as we discovered, trying to attend two presentations in different tracks scheduled for the same 90-minute time slot was practically impossible even when the presentations were not scheduled for the same 15-minute segment within the 90 minutes.
Especially helpful for non-scientists in the future might be an interpretive segment closing each time slot, preceding the question sessions, in which a panel moderator succinctly explains what greater significance the slide-and-microscope findings have.
We found that many of the nearly 300 scientists who participated in the 5th International One Health Congress, especially the younger scientists, were much better at describing how they solved a small problem than at describing what might be done with the findings to help address bigger issues.
Solving the small problems in research are important, but context is what matters most to media and the public.
And the One Health concept is, at the bottom line, all about addressing the context that animals and humans are a continuum, including in our shared capacity to suffer from infectious agents.